Category Archives: Thinking about feeling

Challenging anxious thoughts

When anxiety rolls in, it announces that everything will be awful. I have a powerful imagination, and my anxiety hijacks this and gets me to imagine multiple terrible outcomes for everything. This is exhausting, and I am really good at frightening myself. For some time now, I’ve been trying to find ways of dealing with this.

I have done some CBT work, and the problem there is that it assumes your anxiety is irrational. My anxiety is not irrational, it is absolutely rooted in my life experiences. The things that come up for me when anxiety kicks in are based firmly on stuff that has happened. Treating it as irrational reduces my self-confidence and has me second guessing myself and that’s not useful. Consequently, stage one of anxiety management for me, is to listen to that anxiety and to acknowledge that it is a perfectly reasonable thing to feel. When I do that it becomes easier to then ask ‘but is it relevant right now?’

I do risk assessments. I try and look as carefully as I can at the situation to decide how applicable my anxious feelings are. Often this helps me at least consider that it may not be terrible. Sometimes I decide that my anxiety is right and that I should get out. At times, my anxious thinking does have a protective aspect to it, and this is something I have no desire to lose.

Sometimes, I can’t tell on reflection whether the anxiety is well-founded or not. Often when dealing with other people, I just don’t have enough information. When dealing with people, I’ve decided that one key question to ask is ‘do I think they will treat me kindly?’ I don’t need everyone to get everything absolutely right for me, but in anxious situations, the care of another person can be a game changer. The person who can say no gently, and with respect isn’t going to do me serious harm. Can I trust a person’s kindness? When I’ve concluded that the answer is ‘yes’ and been proved right, it’s been powerful and transformative stuff. The only thing I need to trust in another human being is their kindness.

I now also challenge myself to try and think about best outcomes as well as worst ones. It helps me not get into obsessive over-thinking about terrible things. It can provide useful information as I risk assess a situation. It helps me see when things really are moving in the right direction. A good outcome can be hard to spot if all you’ve got is disaster thinking. Imagining what the best someone might do would look like helps me open up possibilities that anxiety would have shut down.

I want to keep some aspects of my anxious thinking as part of my tool set. I know it helps me stay safe. I don’t want to give my anxiety the steering wheel, or have it dominate how I think about people and situations. I want to hold room for new and different things to happen, and where I’ve been able to do that, there have been powerful responses from other people that really change things for me.

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Work, depression and self esteem

Here are some mechanics I have observed repeatedly in my own life, and am fairly sure I am seeing in the lives of various of my friends who suffer from depression.

Overworking → exhausted → depressed → feeling inadequate → unable to work → feeling even more inadequate → becoming even more depressed.

Or…

Overworking → exhausted → depressed → feeling inadequate → working harder → becoming even more exhausted → becoming more depressed.

When you look to work for validation, for a sense of self worth and achievement, and depression is gnawing away at your underpinnings, the odds are you aren’t going to win. But, if you don’t work (be that paid or unpaid), you get to feel even more useless. Depression is good at telling a person they are useless, worthless, unlovable, unacceptable.

Thus when depression kicks in, I turn towards work to try and feel validated. While resting might help my body, it can actually leave me more anxious and insecure than trying to crack on. Instead of turning to others around me for help and kindness, I dig in to the most utilitarian relationships. I focus on where I am most useful, not where most good flows towards me.

I’ve looked hard at the mechanics of this, as it happens in my own life and as I observe others on the same downward spirals. The conclusions I have come to are that it is very hard to get off this spiral on your own, and that once you are on it is not a good time to be dealing with the things that cause it. The real answer lies in what happens the rest of the time – how loved, supported, valued, resourced and welcome a person feels. The degree to which utility dominates relationships in the normal scheme of things. The amount of positive feedback and soul food.

This in turn leads me to thinking about how we normally treat each other. How transactional are our relationships? How much of a feeling of scarcity underpins how we treat each other? How much do we do to validate each other in the normal scheme of things? What do we do for the people around us if we suspect they aren’t ok? If we can support and validate each other on terms that are not primarily about usefulness, I suspect we can all help each other stay out of the awful downwards spirals.

There is a massive amount of power in telling someone you value them, and that their value is not conditional on what they do for you.


When to run away

Anxiety creates strong urges to run away. Perhaps some people get fight as well as flight, but I suspect that panic is more likely to just kick off the flight impulse.

A few years ago I decided to give myself permission to act on my panic. I’d been through a lot of challenging situations where I’d had to stay put, no matter what it cost me. Staying with something that has panicked you so much that you feel an overwhelming urge to flee, is something I find not only emotionally tough, but takes a toll on my body as well. Not running away increases the stress. Not manifesting the stress in any visible way creates massive tension in me.

I talked with my nearest and dearest about strategies to manage my running away. We started planning how to handle situations that looked high risk for panic. It took the pressure off considerably. I’ve had to run away from a few things, and it’s generally been a good choice.

Of course running away is only a delaying tactic for some issues. It can be expensive in other ways. I’ve had two work related panic issues in the last year. Running away from workspaces means running away from money. I’ve run away from jobs before that were making me ill, and I’ve run away from a couple of volunteering situations as well. I have learned to put my mental health first, and created a living arrangement that allows me to get out if something is making me ill.

The most recent rounds have been remarkably different however, because both times, someone else has stepped forward with a solution to help me stay. I’ve said many times that I believe in community solutions to mental health problems, but it’s a whole other thing to have someone come in and offer just that. Situations I’ve stepped away from permanently haven’t offered support or much care that I was struggling. No one was willing to do things differently to accommodate me. Sometimes, there wasn’t even anyone willing to hear what the problem was. I don’t think this is unusual – we place the responsibility for mental health problems squarely on the shoulders of the person suffering.

However, when someone else can step in with a solution, everything changes. It means feeling heard and respected, feeling valued despite these problems. It means being given the chance to work in a way that is sustainable for me. It means the work I can do is seen as worth more than the bother of changing things to keep me viable.

Many workplaces are stressful and difficult. When we expect people to just shut up and put up with it, it is inevitable that some will crack under the pressure. We’re living with a mental health crisis that has been explicitly linked to work stress (but not widely reported – it was in a chief medical officer’s report a few years ago). It’s not that startling to discover that when we take care of each other, stress may be less of an issue and people may be less at risk of anxiety and depression. Community solutions work for illness caused by collective dysfunction, if only we have the will to implement them.


Food and happiness

When the subject of food comes up in relation to happiness, it’s usually about comfort eating. And certainly, there are times when comfort eating is a thing. I’ve found toast really helps me ward off low-level depression – there’s nothing like low blood sugar to quietly bring you down. Food has a lot to offer us in terms of happiness.

Hunger, poor nutrition and low blood sugar will all contribute to feelings of gloom and misery. Eating a diet that supports your bodily and mental health obviously contributes to happiness. People dieting can be quick to cut out the fats, but brain and skin alike do need fats – plant derived ones are best. Amino acids from protein are essential for brain function, it is harder to feel happy if you aren’t getting enough amino acids in your diet. Protein is expensive, so poverty diets are likely to increase your unhappiness.

We live in a culture where fat shaming is normal, and where food is loaded with social and emotional messages for many people. However, food is essential to life, and as social creatures, food plays an important role (or can) in our interactions. Creating spaces where food can be approached in a comfortable and relaxed way, can really help improve happiness. Sharing nutritionally good food in easygoing company can be a source of great comfort, joy and pleasure. Being cooked for often registers with people as an expression of care. I’ve also heard many stories about older relatives who expressed love through food – and so long as that’s not your only expression, that’s fine.

Eating well takes care of some of our most basic needs. To eat well in a physically comfortable space as part of a community where you feel safe and welcome, answers a great many of our most basic needs. Taking the time to do this can be really powerful. When we feel under pressure to rush about, and eat solitary meals in a hurry, we miss out on a lot of good stuff, and we miss the social bonding that can happen around food.

I appreciate that for anyone with an eating disorder, food is stressful and problematic. I don’t have the experience to speak to that in much detail, I’ve only ever been on the edges of it. I think any of us can help with this by making food more comfortable and less stressful – not loading it emotionally with shame or with demands, not putting pressure on anyone over what they do, or do not eat, not making body size or appetite an issue – it all helps make eating less of an issue. Acceptance can be powerful and enabling.

If you’re concerned about someone else’s body shape, or about what they do, or do not eat, and the person is not your own small child, it’s not your job to tell them. A great deal of food-related bullying comes from people who are convinced they are being helpful. As though overweight and underweight people are unable to tell what’s going on with their bodies. Yes, sometimes illness distorts body sense, but if you aren’t either a mental health professional, or absolutely aware of how the person sees themselves, you’ve got no basis to take this on. Challenging people over their eating and body size usually has the effect of making them feel worse, disempowered, ashamed and miserable. None of these feelings enable a person to move towards a more sustaining relationship with food.

If you want to help someone have a happier relationship with food, quietly model that relationship, and give them a safe and supportive space in which they can make changes for themselves.


Rest and Happiness

There is nothing like being exhausted to bring on the depression and anxiety. There is also nothing like pushing yourself to work when exhausted to lower self esteem and make you feel awful. Rest is a basic human need, and if for some reason you can’t have it over long time frames, your mental health will suffer, as will the rest of your body.

We need rest to heal, to recover from illness. We need time to draw breath, reflect on life, make plans, regroup and digest what we’ve learned. Life without this is stressful and feels like constant fire fighting.

I’ve done seven day weeks and twelve hour days – when you’re self employed and not very well paid the pressure to try and do some extra thing for whatever extra pay you can get, is vast. Some years ago I ditched hard work in favour of smart work. I started taking better care of myself. If I’m not teetering on the edge of burnout all the time, I’m faster, more effective, and more efficient. I’m also happier and better able to enjoy what I’m doing.

I normally take weekends off. Sometimes I take afternoons off, or a day in the week. At the end of December I had the wonderful luxury of a whole week off. I plan rest and recovery into my week. As a consequence, I get more done and feel better while I’m doing it. I’ve also seen marked changes in my self esteem. I’ve spent most of my life with low self esteem, easily persuaded that my wants are irrelevant and that my needs aren’t proper needs anyway. Everything and everyone else has always seemed more important. In putting my own need for rest on the list I’ve challenged those beliefs head on. It’s been interesting.

Having made room for my own needs, I’ve become less open to people who want to run me until I break, or use me until I’m used up. I’ve chosen better, healthier and more supportive spaces to be in. This has also greatly improved my happiness and wellbeing.

When you suffer from low self esteem it’s hard to give any priority to your own happiness and wellbeing, or to get out of situations that aren’t doing you any good. Failure to meet basic needs makes you feel even less like a person. Something as simple as resting can have a massive restorative effect. Not only does it replenish the body, but you also affirm your sense of worth and personhood by doing it. You have the same needs as any other person and the same entitlement to meet them, and that can be a huge building block to better feelings about yourself and having better standards and boundaries that will serve you, not someone else.

Resting gives you the time to look at how your energy is used and to reflect on what’s working. The person who is run ragged all the time doesn’t get space to plan an escape route, or energy to question what’s happening. Rest enables reflection, and reflection helps us make much better choices. Not only does rest help with mental health issues, it opens the way to being actively healthier and happier. It’s not a quick fix – the more entrenched the problems, the deeper the exhaustion the longer it takes to get on top of this. To begin, you have to treat it like it matters, and that can be hard. If you can’t treat resting like it matters, there are some huge questions to ask about your life, and you’re going to need to make the time to ask them. No one can run flat out forever.


Comfort and discomfort

This weekend has brought a radical change of thinking for me, so I’m going to share it on the off-chance someone else finds it useful.

Triggering and panic attacks are big issues for me. Less of a problem than they used to be, but still things I have to navigate through. I know that people can trigger me in all innocence. They can do things that look like other things and panic me. My panic is not the measure of whether someone else is a good person or not. So, for years now, I’ve tried very hard to manage my reactions so that I don’t upset someone who has accidentally triggered me.

My experience of talking to people (usually, but not always men) who have triggered me is that many resent being asked to do differently and have expressed the idea that its unfair being held responsible for dealing with the consequences of something they didn’t cause. I’ve heard that and taken it onboard.

It means that much of my behaviour in response to panic and distress is about trying to keep other people comfortable. It’s not been about my comfort, or what I need to do to heal. Some of it is because I feel safer if I keep the men I’m dealing with comfortable. Thankfully the men I live with are not an issue on this score and are willing to hear, change and support. My safety is not dependant on their comfort. But in any other situation, if there’s a tension between my comfort and someone else’s, I tend to feel that asking for my issues to be heard is risky and may make things worse, not better.

This is where I’ve decided to make radical change. I never feel comfortable dealing with people who trigger me and expect me to deal with that. Even when they aren’t setting me off, I don’t feel safe and I am always on edge. I’m going to stop putting myself in those situations. I am not going to show up, or if I really can’t dodge it, I am going to get out at need. I’m going to stop investing energy in trying to make comfortable the people who make me uncomfortable.

If they call me a drama queen, or they say I am making it all about me, or being unfair to them, as has happened before in such situations, maybe I’ll just agree. And get out of the situation. I do not have to feel emotionally responsible. I do not have to feel obliged to comfort and reassure people who discomfort and unnerve me. I do not have to make their opinions the measure of whether my feelings or needs are even valid. It occurs to me that I don’t even have to get this right, or be fair or reasonable, that I can say no because I want to, and that I do not even need to justify it.


If love is not a scarcity

We tell each other stories in contemporary white, western culture about love as a big, dramatic event. We are supposed to fall in love with one person, for the rest of our lives, and live happily ever after. It puts a lot of pressure on a relationship.

Desire can strike us like lightning, kicking off some intense body chemistry reactions that, for a few weeks, may give us all those feelings of drama and foreverness. This chemistry wears off, and sometimes leaves very little of use or value in its wake. Finding that it wasn’t the one big true love of our lives, we feel sad and move on. We have to stop loving one person to move on and have the next go at the love affair that will be the big one.

Imagine what would happen if we did not treat love as a rare and scarce commodity. Imagine how it would be if we considered it pretty normal for people to love other people. If it was normal to love lots of people. Imagine if to love one person, you didn’t have to first stop loving someone else.

Rather than looking for the movie style high octane life shattering romance, we’d maybe have different priorities. We might want to get into relationships with people we like – so many straight relationships seem like battlegrounds, but it need not be that way. We might get into relationships with people because we have similar tastes and interests, and get along well and suit each other – which is essential if you’re trying to live with someone. We might feel ok about having differently shaped relationships with different people who we love.

If we choose how to manifest love, it becomes an active process. Not something that happens to us, where we are passive recipients, powerless to resist. What if love is what we choose and what we do? Not some accident of the universe, but something we make, with our choices and actions?

It is pretty unreasonable to ask one person to be all the things in your life. Not everyone is good at all the things. Not everyone wants to do all the same things. Sometimes it’s useful to have a fresh perspective. If we put down the idea of the one big dramatic love, we might have a bit more room for the modest but very meaningful loves that enrich a life. It might be easier to get along in relationships if we didn’t have to try and be all the things for each other all of the time.

And then, the big love story arc tells us that we should be willing to die for love, Romeo and Juliet style. We should be willing to throw away anything, and everyone, for the prize of that once in a lifetime romance. We should be willing to go cold, hungry, barefoot if it means we can be together. This is utter shit, and does not make for a long term, viable relationship. Sacrificing everything for love puts unbearable pressure on people and does none of us any good. The room to be a bit more pragmatic is valuable indeed.

If love wasn’t viewed as a rare commodity, but as a normal part of how we interact with people, how much else would change?


Peace, love, light and backstabbing

Let me start by being clear that I take no issue with anyone who is drawn towards peace, love or light. These are all good things. Looking back, I see that many of the people I’ve really struggled with have been all about presenting with peace, love and light. The trouble with this approach is that it doesn’t give you any space to deal with difficult feelings or conflicts. What happens then seems to come out sidewise.

If you can be honestly cross, upset, frustrated, envious or anything else that isn’t lovely, then you can deal with life. It may be tempting to want to be some kind of higher, enlightened being that feels none of those ‘negative’ emotions, but that’s not realistic. Also, those emotions are there for a reason. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of them. They are there to protect us and help us learn. Try and suppress those feelings, and you won’t be a better person, you’ll be a person with a problem shadow side whose repressed aspects keep trying to pop out.

It is, without a doubt, better to acknowledge what you’re feeling, however awkward it is, and then deal with it from there. Ignoring the difficult stuff just builds you a bigger problem.

If you buy into the idea that you are, and have to be, an utterly lovely person, you put enormous pressure on yourself. If that slips for even a moment, you have to justify the slip. You may be tempted to figure out how it’s all someone else’s fault – so that you don’t have to own it or feel responsible. This is how we get from peace, love and light, to backstabbing.

If you can’t own your own feelings and have to make someone else responsible for them, of course you give away power. You make it harder to change. You distort your own reality so that your anger is their anger, your resentment is their unfairness. Your jealousy is their manipulative and power hungry behaviour. If you’ve done a good job of your peace-love-light image, the people around you may support you in this rather than help you recognise what’s going on, and for the longer term, that just helps you dig yourself into a deeper hole.

With the benefit of distance, it’s a pretty horrible thing to have seen a person do to themselves.

Looking back, I’ve taken some emotional bruises from people who’ve acted this way. But, I learned and adapted and moved away from those interactions. I was able to acknowledge and deal with my own feelings about those situations. I can feel sad, or cross, or angry, or bitter or resentful without compromising my sense of self, and that’s a great help to me. I can recognise when I’ve been crap, inadequate, or just plain wrong. I’m able to have a realistic relationship with my own experiences. All of the good relationships I have allow me this.

I don’t know what happened to the people who got angry with me but couldn’t own what was going on for them. It’s been easy to let them go and step away. I know from periods in my life where I’ve not been free to express and deal with my own feelings (pain, fear, grief, shock) that it is really expensive. If you can’t live your truth, everything is distorted around that and it becomes exhausting. If they’re lucky, my absence freed them from that, at least with regards to me.

The thing about peace, love and light is that you can only really make them work if you’re also prepared to deal with conflict, loathing and darkness, because nothing exists in perfect isolation from everything else and everything casts a shadow sooner or later.


Depression and self esteem

For some years now I’ve watched a number of friends who suffer from depression hit burnout on a fairly regular basis. I used to burnout regularly too. Sometimes it’s easier to think about what’s going on when looking at someone else’s patterns rather than your own.

Exhaustion can cause depression and will always make it worse. Avoiding this is a process of self care in which you do the pretty obvious thing of dealing properly with your own needs on a day to day basis. However, for people with low self esteem, this doesn’t work in the same way. If you feel that your needs don’t matter, it’s really hard to put them first. If you feel that putting your own needs first would turn you into a terrible, selfish monster, then running yourself into the ground can feel like the responsible choice. In terms of your mental health, it might be less terrifying than trying to be nice to yourself.

People don’t develop poor self esteem all by themselves. I think most of us learn it, or at the very least get it reinforced. And then when you burn out and people tell you off for not taking proper care of yourself, that doesn’t help. I had a lot of rounds of well meaning people pointing out that I could hardly look after anyone else if I wasn’t in good shape, but for a long time that wasn’t something I could work with, only feel as another form of failure.

Low self esteem will keep you feeling like a failure. Feeling like a failure will make you anxious and depressed. You keep running as hard as you can, doing as much as you can and burning out and falling over, and the question to ask is why? Why does that seem like a good idea? It is a hard question to ask and the answers may be tough.

If you don’t feel entitled to exist, then you may spend your whole life trying to make up for being here. Trying to justify your existence, or do something good enough that you can feel entitled to be just like a real person. However, anxiety and depression and burnout won’t raise your self esteem. Not meeting your own basic needs actually adds to low self esteem and keeps you locked in cycles of burnout, effort and despair. These are hard cycles to break. If looking after yourself leads to anxiety about being awful in some way, it’s really hard to look after yourself.

I’ve made a lot of progress on this in recent years, but not by tackling it head on. I’ve done a lot of thinking about how to honour nature in my own body. If Druidry is honouring nature, then treating my mammal body the way I would any other mammal body is something I can get to grips with. Treating my fragility as nature manifesting, as the limitations of my physical self, and the natural realities of my existence has helped me cope with it better.

I’ve also learned that if I am complicit in something unethical, then I support and enable unethical behaviour. I need to model the ways of being that I want to see in the world. There are a number of lovely younger women in my life and I don’t want to show them how to trash yourself and burn out. I want to show them how to live well and take good care of themselves, and to do that, I have to embody it.

It is easier to think about how things impact on other people. If you have low self esteem, it may be easier to do things for other people than it is to do things for yourself. Setting a good example is also something you can do for the people around you. Living in the way you would like the people you care for to live, can be a way of breaking out of the awful cycles that low self esteem can otherwise create.


After the triggering

People who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (not all of whom will have a diagnosis because mental health resources are scarce) experience triggering. Triggering is a process that takes you back into experiences of trauma. It’s very hard, through to impossible to get the resurgence of memory under control. It can mean anything from hours of revisiting terrible memories, unable to stop the flow, through to re-experiencing the trauma as though you are back in that situation and reliving it.

People become traumatised when they experience terrible things – violence, cruelty, assault, psychological torment… and when that becomes normal. A person can experience a terrible one off thing and not take massive psychological damage if it doesn’t then become part of their sense of how the world works. However, if you spend time in a literal or metaphorical war zone, it becomes your reality, and at some level it’s hard to feel safe after that, and so easy to go back there.

Traumatised people respond dramatically to things other people may think are no big deal. This can make it very confusing to deal with from the outside, because from the outside, it doesn’t look like a reasonable pattern of cause and effect. This can lead to treating the trauma survivor as though they are a drama queen, or totally unreasonable, or being unfair.

I have on enough occasions dealt with people who weren’t going to walk on eggshells around me and who weren’t going to be careful about not triggering me and didn’t see why they should have to. This, for me, is now a deal-breaker in a relationship of any shape. If someone doesn’t value me enough to at least try not to trigger me, it’s not a place I can afford to stay.

When a person doesn’t make sense, it can be hard to find empathy, or to work with them. It is easy to dismiss what seems illogical or out of all proportion.

After someone has been triggered, things can go one of two ways:

One: in the aftermath of the triggering they may learn that it was a reasonable response. They aren’t safe. They can’t trust the people around them. What looked ominous was indeed a real threat, and they were right to respond as they did. The normalising of the trauma continues. They learn that what they fear, is true.

Two: they learn that it was a mistake, and that the people around them care and want to fix things and keep them safe and help them feel better. The sense that traumatic experiences are normal and to be expected diminishes a little, and the world becomes a slightly better place.

The difference in these situations is the behaviour of the person who caused the triggering once it’s evident that there’s a problem. Do they add to it, or do they try to sort things out? Do they blame, shame, mock and belittle the victim, or do they encourage them and help them get back on their feet? Do they take careful note of the problem in the hopes they can make sure it never happens again, or do they call the victim a snowflake?

We have so much power over each other. So much potential for good and for harm. So often it comes down to whether we are willing and able to care about things that may at first make no sense to us.